Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Toward the Flame, A Memoir of World War I
Reviewed by Ron Drees

Toward the Flame, A Memoir of World War I

By Hervey Allen
Reprint of 1934 Issue by Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2003

Hervey Allen (1889–1949) was a critically acclaimed writer of poetry, prose, and fiction, including the popular novel Anthony Adverse. In his memoir, considered by many to be the best American memoir to come out of World War I, Allen surprisingly does not start where the reader might expect him to, namely with stateside training and so forth, but plunges us immediately into his life as a slogging infantryman arriving in the Marne sector, marching constantly at all hours regardless of weather or exhaustion, dodging shell bursts, and always enduring hunger. No trench warfare here. Only at the beginning does Allen give a date, 4 July 1918. Otherwise the reader is like a typical Doughboy, lost as to time and location.

Allen accurately describes the minutiae necessary to survive war:

In order to keep from drawing a shelling, the men had not moved anything in the yard. There was a child's bicycle by the station and a little wagon. To have moved these would have shown up in aerial photos and might have brought a bombardment on that part of the town.

Throughout his memoir Allen describes the attrition of war, especially the hideous affronts of war upon soldiers' bodies and minds. Describing the effects of a shell burst he reports: Then we heard those awful agonized screams and cries for help that so often followed. It is impossible to make people at home understand what listening to them does to your brain. You never get rid of them again.

Allen continues his observations of the war as a semi-detached observer throughout his book and it is only toward the end that he records how his unit, a company down to less than half strength, finally comes in direct contact with the enemy. They are continually whittled down by German artillery at the battle of Fismette village, part of the Second Battle of the Marne, while the withdrawal order of an American officer is overruled by an obsessed French general. The narrative ends as Allen's troops are overwhelmed by German flamethrowers, thus explaining the title of his memoir.

Because of his injuries from this battle, Allen spent considerable time in hospital. This provided him the opportunity to write letters home which later were to become the basis of his book. Eventually he recovered, returned to combat, and finished the war, whereupon he became an interpreter. Read this classic book if the experiences of ground pounders are of interest to you, even if it is hardly a document for those specializing in strategy or the "higher levels" of war. Without doubt the mundane, the horrors, the basic tactics, and the sheer pounding dreariness of life under combat are all effectively portrayed in an incisive manner for those interested in what it was really like to be in WWI.

Ron Drees


  1. Being very much interested in WWI memoirs, this article really spiked my attention. I'm ashamed to say I had never heard of Allen before, but now because of this excellent piece I'm going to be 'clicking to order from Amazon'. Thank you, Ron!

  2. He served as a Lieutenant in the 28th (keystone) Division, United States Army during the World War I and fought in the Aisne-Marne offensive July–August 1918. He wrote "Toward the Flame" (1926), a nonfictional account of his experiences in the war.
    To see original film (U.S. Army Signal Corps)from the war of the 28th Division go to: